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Watching For Terrorists: Many Names, Many Lists

The Obama administration is planning to unveil on Thursday the findings of a swift review of its procedures for placing potential terrorists on a federal watch list after the failed Christmas Day attack exposed continuing gaps in the process.

Airplanes line up as they await their turn to take off at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, February, 2008.
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Above: Airplanes line up as they await their turn to take off at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, February, 2008.

The U.S. government's system of maintaining multiple watch lists has drawn new scrutiny after President Obama admitted that spy agencies had collected, but failed to connect, pieces of information that should have led authorities to pay greater attention to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student who allegedly tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253.

"While our review has found that our watch-listing system is not broken, the failure to add Abdulmutallab to the "no-fly" list shows that this system needs to be strengthened," Obama said Tuesday. The president has already ordered some changes in how the watch lists are coordinated and more are expected.

By design, the government has placed different agencies in charge of several separate databases and watch lists, deliberately splitting responsibility between the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies.

The process starts on the intelligence-gathering side, where a tremendous flood of information pours into the National Counterterrorism Center, a clearinghouse agency created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and run by the Director of National Intelligence.

Thousands Of New Names Daily

Each day, the NCTC receives leads on many thousands of individuals who may be associated in some fashion with terrorism. The names come in via more than 30 different government agencies and networks. Some might be reported by clandestine CIA officers overseas or by FBI agents. Others might be picked up from telephone calls or e-mails intercepted overseas by the National Security Agency.

In the Abdulmutallab case, the U.S. embassy in Nigeria received a warning about the Nigerian student from his father and sent the information to the NCTC. But nobody at the State Department or the NCTC ran the name against consular lists, where they would have discovered that Abdulmutallab held a U.S. visa.

Part of the problem is sheer volume. At the NCTC, a staff that numbers only in the dozens must process these thousands of names daily and decide when there is enough information to place them into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. TIDE is the central repository for all intelligence on possible terrorists.

"The challenge here is to sort out from the noise what is worth paying closer attention to," says one official familiar with the process.

Currently, there are some 550,000 individuals listed in TIDE database, although the information is rarely complete and the terrorist connections may turn out to be insignificant.

In response to the Abdulmutallab episode, Obama already ordered some changes, such as requiring the State Department to include current visa information in its reporting on possible terrorist connections.

Which Names Are Worthy Of Attention?

But the compilation of the NCTC's database is only the first step of the process. Next, analysts at the NCTC and other agencies nominate people on the TIDE list every evening to be added to the Terrorist Screening Database. The TSDB, which is the official terrorism watch list, is run by the Terrorist Screening Center, housed at the FBI. Law enforcement officials there decide whether there is a "reasonable suspicion" each person nominated by the NCTC might have terrorist ties.

"Mere guesses or inarticulate 'hunches' are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion," Timothy Healy, the director for the Terrorist Screening Center, told Congress last month to explain the legal standard.

The terrorism watch list, which currently has more than 400,000 names on it, can be accessed by domestic law enforcement agencies, as well as the intelligence community and the State Department.

But for the vast majority of those 400,000 names, no overt actions will be taken. When customs officers, local police officers or consular officers encounter one of these individuals, they report it the Terrorist Screening Center, which receives about 150 such calls each day.

"All positive matches, which are approximately 30 to 40 percent of all reported encounters, are forwarded to the FBI's Counterterrorism Division for an appropriate law enforcement response," Healy told Congress. "The response could range from arresting the subject, if there is an outstanding federal warrant, to merely gathering additional intelligence information about the subject."

Many Suspicious Names, Multiple Lists

All the other government watch lists, including the "no-fly" list, are drawn from the broad TSDB. But the criteria for the others are significantly more stringent, including a very clear connection to terrorism.

When it comes to air travel, for example, there are at least two lists run by the Terrorist Screening Center that the officials at the Transportation Security Administration consult. One, called the "selectee list," includes about 14,000 names of people who are allowed to fly, but will be subjected to mandatory secondary screening.

The no-fly list is even more elite, containing a mere 4,000 names. To make this list, authorities at the Terrorist Screening Center need to have a "reasonable suspicion" that a suspect poses a serious, terrorist-related threat to air travel.

After the Abdulmutallab episode, officials went back and reviewed these more selective lists, adding at least dozens of additional terrorist suspects to the no-fly list.

"This was not a failure to collect intelligence," Obama said on Tuesday. "It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had."

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